A sudsy trip through Kaunas

  • 2007-06-20
  • By James McGeever

ON THE CASE: Fortas Draught is just one of the 170 products produced at Ragutis. Others include ciders, long-drinks and an energy drink.

KAUNAS - For anyone enthusiastic about the production of alcoholic beverages (imbibers and technicians alike), a visit to Kaunas should definitely be on the agenda. The city offers a choice of three worthy destinations, not even including the city's smaller microbreweries. All three are strategically placed at key points of arrival into Kaunas: at the bottom of the main road into the city (Savanoriu Prospektas) you'll find the old Kaunas Brewery; the Stumbras distillery is behind the main bus station; and opposite the train station is the imposing sight of the Ragutis Brewery 's the town's biggest beer producer.

The Ragutis brewery has operated on its present site since 1860. It used to produce a beer brand named after the factory, but the Ragutis name disappeared from beer bottle labels a few years ago to be replaced by the Horn brand 's a name that inevitably raises some smirks on faces of English-speaking visitors. Vytautas Meistas, Ragutis' Managing Director, refers to Ragutis as a "light alcoholic drinks factory" and explains that the brand name change was necessary for reasons of history and image.
"During the Soviet occupation the reputation of Ragutis beer was not so positive," he said. "There was an association with the past that we felt we had to lose."

Ragutis' history dates back to 1853. Before it changed its name to Ragutis in 1967, the company was known by the names I.B.Wolf and Engelman. From 1940 to 1994 the brewery was a state-owned company. It was privatized in 1994 and is now wholly owned by the Finnish brewing company OLVI, who bought a majority of its shares from the Czech Plzensky Prazdroj brewing company in 1999. Olvi also have shares in Latvian and Estonian brewing companies.
A tour of the brewery (or LADs Factory) can be arranged through one of the five or so tourist offices in Kaunas. My tour guide was Justinas, a cheery, well informed production technician who was able to answer any and every question on the whole start-to-finish process of beer making. He was also up to speed on other products made within the brewery 's 170 in all 's including cider, what are referred to as "long drinks" ( fizzy, fruit flavored alcoholic drinks), and an energy drink. Ragutis is now the third biggest seller of beer, and the biggest seller of cider, in Lithuania.

The technical process is fascinating. I expected to see great massive piles of hops being shelled or separated from the chaff, or whatever it is they do to hops to get them ready for the mix. I was therefore surprised and somewhat disappointed to see sterile silver foil bags of pellet hops, each bag either 3.5 or 5 kg in weight, and each containing a different type of hop.
The process is far too complicated to explain here. And besides, if I did you wouldn't have the fun I did trying to keep pace with all the technical details that cropped up during the tour. It's enough to say that each floor of the brewery has something going on that needs to go on in order to produce bottled beer, something that takes the malted barley, hops, yeast and water and miraculously turns them into the purest form of poison you could possibly find.

You will see milled malt, the copper vats for the mashing and production of wort, the heating process (very important I was told), the pipes taking the wort to fermentation rooms, the yeast room, and the huge vats 's horizontal and vertical 's for storing the beer before bottling takes place.
Each of the four huge Czech-made copper vats was being cleaned on my visit, so alas there was no peering in to see frothy wort and no smelling the fermentation process either. During any 24-hour period each 20 cubic meter copper vat can be busy producing six different batches of beers.
The brewery has a tourist gallery 's a room on the fourth floor that can accommodate up to 25 people 's with a terrific view out over the lower part of town. The gallery walls have several interesting displays of historic beer brand labels going back to the brewery's very beginning, along with some old advertising posters. Brewery beer is served here too, of course.

Although marketing the brewery for tourists is not something currently on the agenda at Ragutis, that may soon change. Vytautas Meistas explained that within a year or two there may well be more of a format to tourist visits to the brewery perhaps providing visitors with three options: a short video history and beer tasting, a brewery visit only, or both.
The sister brewery in Tartu provides such a tour and according to Dalius Rutkauskas, Ragutis' Sales and Marketing Director, it provides visitors with a wonderful opportunity to experience the beer making history of Tartu, and it's profitable too.

Finally, I asked Dalius a question about the fantastic dark beers that Ragutis produces 's including a chocolate porter and a honey Porter 's and why they are only available for a limited period. The reason for this is the limited shelf life that they have. Dark beers are no longer as popular in Lithuania and so can only be produced in limited batches and in short runs. Life can be so unfair sometimes.
A quick trawl through some of the Ragutis brands on the Beerpal Web site (www.beerpal.com) will give you an idea of the range and flavors of the beers on offer.

If you're planning a tour of Ragutis and either of the other two alcoholic beverage producers in Kaunas, contact the Musu Odiseja tourist agency (www.turinfo.lt) almost next door to Ragutis brewery. They prefer a group of at least ten people, and the cost will be around 25 litas per person.